Hardly a week goes by these days without a group of religious progressives in Washington rolling out some major new policy or political initiative. Right before President Obama's official announcement of the nomination of Kathleen Sebelius for secretary of health and human services, a left-leaning organization called Catholics United launched a campaign to rally faith-based support for her, including a website called Catholics for Sebelius. Facing attacks from Christian right groups over her pro-choice stance, Catholics United argues that Sebelius reduced Kansas's abortion rate as governor and that she is personally antiabortion, though she backs abortion rights.
Last month, progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis partnered with former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson to issue bipartisan recommendations for reducing domestic poverty. Some of them, like expanding the child tax credit and funding re-entry programs for ex-offenders, showed up in the White House's 2010 budget.
And earlier this year, a recently launched progressive organization called Faith in Public Life helped facilitate a dialogue between high-profile evangelicals and secular liberals to find common ground on hot-button issues like abortion. The project culminated in the release of "Come Let Us Reason Together," a purported road map for ending the culture wars, and a meeting with White House aides.
It's hard to remember a time in the past three decades when there was so much faith-based activity on the political left. Groups like Catholics United and Faith in Public Life didn't even exist before the 2004 election, when Democrats got walloped by so-called values voters.
But as left-of-center religious voices have crescendoed into a full-blown movement, there has been a break in the ranks. Some grass-roots religious liberals are charging that supposedly progressive religious groups like Faith in Public Life and Catholics United have gone centrist, turning their backs on true progressive values. These proud religious leftists say that Washington's purportedly progressive faithful are more concerned with wooing religious conservatives into the Democratic Party. As opposed to battling the religious right, religious leftists say, Washington's new breed of religious progressives want to co-opt the religious right's base. "A lot of people in the mushy middle want to call themselves progressive," says Dan Schultz, who runs the popular religious-left blog Street Prophets and frequently criticizes more moderate liberal voices, including Faith in Public Life and Jim Wallis. "If all you want to do is talk to conservatives and incorporate conservative ideas, are you really a progressive?"
Indeed, at a moment when the number of alternative faith-based voices to the religious right has exploded, the debate on the left between liberal and more centrist religious voices is raising questions about exactly what it means to be a religious progressive. Those in the more centrist beltway crowd, which prefers the "religious progressive" label, say it means providing an alternative faith voice to the religious right. They want to expand the religion-in-politics agenda to include protecting the environment and ending coercive interrogation techniques, issues that enjoy some bipartisan support. But the religious left prefers direct combat with the religious right, standing firm for liberal values—even on divisive issues like abortion and gay rights. More centrist groups like Faith in Public Life and Catholics United have worked to defuse culture war issues like abortion and gay marriage, which have usually wound up benefiting the Republican Party politically. While they stick up for Democrats whose faith comes under attack from the religious right—like Sebelius—centrist-leaning religious progressives also want to tweak the party's stances on wedge issues. The "Come Let Us Reason Together" coalition, for instance, proposes reducing abortions through increased access to contraception for low-income women and promoting comprehensive sex education.
Schultz and his fellow religious leftists, meanwhile, want to articulate moral or faith-based rationales for liberal positions "If we're talking about a basic human right [to abortion]," says Schultz, a Wisconsin-based United Church of Christ minister, "why should we discourage people from exercising that right?"
The same goes for gay rights. "There's no question that Jesus consorted with outlaws, sinners, and prostitutes," says Peter Laarman, who leads the Los Angeles-based religious-left group Progressive Christians Uniting and is another critic of Washington's burgeoning religious-progressive set. "For Christians to say, 'I only validate traditionally normal sexual behavior,' that's lazy theology."
Corrected on 04/01/09: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the web site Religion Dispatches.